The May primary election hit Kevin Looper like a head-butt.
Looper, 36, is a genial, grizzly-sized political consultant who moved to Portland six years ago and is now perhaps the state's top voter-turnout guru.
If you want to know how often the average unregistered slacker changes addresses, opens his mail or is likely to be home and lucid enough to sign a voter registration card, Looper is your man.
Looper is also a partisan. A big-D Democrat who works for the union-backed group Our Oregon. The Nebraska native says Oregon's progressive reputation—and its mountains—are why he moved here.
"Oregon is the last great place in this country," Looper says. "And I want to see it stay that way."
But what Looper learned from the May primary extinguished his habitual smile. Most of us just saw a tepid election with low turnout, especially among young voters. Looper saw confirmation of something far more profound: a reliably blue state on the verge of turning red.
That's right. Oregon, where only one of eight statewide elected officials, Sen. Gordon Smith, is a Republican. Oregon, where Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion since 1986 and where every Democratic presidential candidate since then has carried the state.
First state with a bottle bill, first with an all-public coastline, first with an urban growth boundary, first with vote-by-mail, first with physician-assisted suicide—that Oregon is unmistakably losing its Democratic majority, Looper says.
As seismic as such a shift would be, it is a well-kept secret. Reed College political science chairman Paul Gronke was unaware of Democrats' dwindling power. "I'm stunned," Gronke says. "I find that very surprising and something that has not been highlighted by the press at all."
Former state senator and Oregon Republican Party vice-chairwoman Marylin Shannon says Republicans' gathering strength is little recognized even among her party's leaders.
"When I show the data at [Republican] Central Committee meetings, people say, 'I didn't know this,'" says Shannon.
"This" is the fact that, absent major demographic shifts, Republicans are on track to soon outnumber Democrats in Oregon.
In the liberal Portland echo chamber, such a notion might seem absurd. But a Republican-controlled Oregon would probably be an entirely different place on issues ranging from abortion, school funding and the environment to the judiciary and the Legislature.
"This state can go from progressive to regressive," Looper says. "And they can win if we don't participate."
Last Thursday, The Oregonian published an analysis of the May City Council primary races titled "Blue Tide." The paper's conclusion?
"Portland, which had its share of Reagan Republicans, is now a sea of liberal blue—and getting bluer all the time," the story's sub-headline stated.
The story was accurate, as far as it went.
What the daily neglected to mention is that on a statewide basis, Portland's Democratic super-majority matters less each day. The trend is so clear that if the Democratic Party of Oregon were a publicly traded corporation, owners would be lining up to dump their stock.
Over the past three decades, the number of registered Democrats in the state has not only failed to keep pace with population growth, it has actually declined in absolute terms. According to the secretary of state's election statistics, there were 794,218 Oregon Democrats in 1976; as of this past May, there were 760,066.
Thirty years ago, 56 percent of registered Oregon voters were Democrats; today, that number is less than 39 percent.
Over the same time period, the number of registered Republicans in the state has soared by half. If not for a temporary spike in Democratic registration in 2004, generated by a one-time expenditure of $10 million in national party funds, the Democratic advantage—currently less than 3 percent of the electorate—might already have disappeared.
A declining registration advantage is only part of Democrats' problem. The current gap between the two parties is even smaller than it appears, because in every Oregon general election since 1964, the GOP has turned out a higher percentage of its voters than have the Democrats.
"Republicans vote more because they are typically better educated and more affluent," says Bill Lunch, chairman of the political science department at Oregon State University.
Democrats not only face a rising Republican tide, they also must compete for a growing and unpredictable cadre of independent voters.
Over the past three decades, voters who register with neither of the major parties have increased far faster than Democrats or Republicans.
Since 1976, nonaffiliated or independent voters have increased by 244 percent and now make up about more than a fifth of the Oregon electorate.
With the two major parties approaching parity, those independent voters play a crucial role in statewide elections. They are nearly impossible to categorize.
"For the most part, they don't trust either party," says Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts.
You could almost say that independents are schizophrenic. In Multnomah County in 2004, for instance, nonaffiliated voters supported Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by a margin of 72 to 27 percent. That might suggest that local independents are really Democrats.
But those same voters also supported conservative ballot measures in 2004.
A majority of Multnomah County voters, for instance, voted "yes" on Measure 37, which undermines key elements of the state's land-use planning system. Measure 36, the constitutional ban on gay marriage, also did far better in Multnomah County than the Kerry vote might have suggested.
"Portland voters may be liberals but are also libertarians," says Reed College's Gronke. "They'll rally for ethanol or against Wal-Mart, but they don't want to pay taxes or be told what to do."
In this ballot-measure-loving state, conservatives have increasingly used initiatives to seize the political agenda. Based on the signatures turned in last week, it appears that progressives will once again be playing defense against conservative measures that include a spending cap, a state-wide tax cut and parental notification for abortions.
Critics say conservatives' domination of the initiative process is due to out-of-state money and deceptive signature-gathering practices.
Such claims may be true, but neither excuses Democrats' failure to rally their base with compelling ballot measures. While conservatives served up red-meat issues on taxes, abortion, term limits and the selection of judges, among others, progressives did little more than play defense.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Oregon electorate is increasingly intrigued by conservative initiatives—though not yet by conservative politicians.
"That drives Republicans crazy," says Dan Lavey, a Republican political consultant. "People will vote for our ballot measures but not our candidates."
"The reality is that Democrats have done a much better job of fielding good candidates who can win," adds Tim Nashif, director of the Oregon Family Council, which in 2004 successfully ran Measure 36 banning gay marriage.
Short term, President George Bush's woeful approval ratings could hurt Republican candidates, but in November the GOP will take aim at the political middle with gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton. The pro-choice corporate lawyer spent the past 20 years in the mainstream before tacking hard to the right in the primary.
Many believe he is now swinging back to the middle and will present voters with perhaps their most moderate choice since 1990, when Republican Dave Frohnmayer lost to Democrat Barbara Roberts.
Hibbitts says a Saxton victory in November—he's making no predictions at this point—could fundamentally change the dynamics of Oregon statewide races, by ending reproductive choice as the litmus test for Republican candidates.
"The stakes in that race go far beyond Saxton," Hibbits says.
Why is this state turning red?
Much of the reason involves demographic shifts. Since the mid-'70s, Oregon's population has grown by nearly 50 percent, to 3.6 million. About two-thirds of the increase came from in-migration—primarily from California—rather than from new births.
It is unclear exactly how the newcomers have affected electoral dynamics. More clear is that the locus of population growth has shifted.
For much of the '80s and '90s, newcomers primarily flocked to Multnomah County. But more recently and, if projections are accurate, in the foreseeable future, Oregon's fastest population growth will come in places where newbies are far more likely to vote Republican: notably, Deschutes, Jackson and Clackamas counties (see chart, page 29).
Nor are traditional Democratic strongholds likely to grow their way back into control. True-blue Eugene has lost its position as Oregon's second largest city to reliably red Salem.
And Portland? The city's charms will continue to lure lots of young liberals. But, studies shows they vote far less often than suburban and rural newcomers and produce far fewer babies.
There are also shifts within existing populations. Democrats once dominated the state's timber, mining and agriculture industries. No more. "Democrats used to be the party of the rural worker," says Oregon State's Lunch. "But in the '90s, they became the environmental party, and many workers saw that shift as contrary to their interests."
The Oregon Coast also used to be as blue as the Pacific. But as the coastal Democrats die off, they are being replaced by Republicans. Hibbits cites the example of Coos County in southern Oregon, long the coast's most populous county,
In 1972, a majority of Coos residents voted for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. In 2004, however, they favored Bush by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.
Similarly, south-central Oregon, particularly Jackson and Deschutes counties, has become a mecca for California retirees, many of whom lean right. "They're more likely to be conservative on government spending because they don't want to spend money on programs that don't benefit them," says Richard Clucas, a professor of political science at Portland State University.
Not every demographic change penalizes Democrats. Registration numbers show that Washington County, the state's second-largest county, is trending slightly bluer. "In the suburbs, association with the environmental movement has been a positive for the Democrats," Lunch says. "And suburban women are put off by the rightward shift of Republicans on social issues."
Such gains, however, are mere ripples compared with the red wave, which on the West Coast is unique to Oregon. Although political pundits tend to lump Oregon with California and Washington as a solid band of blue, Oregon's reddening trend is out of sync with neighbors to the north and south.
"If you take the three West Coast states, Oregon is the least Democratic," Lunch says.
In Washington, Democrats control statewide offices, including the governor's mansion and both houses of the Legislature. And in California, while Republican Arnold Scharwzenegger unseated Democrat Gray Davis three years ago, the state's massive minority population makes it far more reliably Democratic than Oregon, Lunch explains.
Nationally, Republicans are gaining ground, particularly in the South, says George Mason University political science professor Michael McDonald. McDonald says 2004 exit poll data, including from Oregon, show a clear trend: "New independents are coming disproportionately from the Democratic Party."
If current patterns continue, Portland could end up looking even more like a Pacific Northwest version of Israel: a geographically and politically isolated enclave dependent on the support of distant allies.
The problem is, few here know it's happening. Looper says locals are like frogs cozy in a pot of warm water, blissfully unaware that they are on a stovetop and the temperature is rising.
"Multnomah County Democrats don't understand that the world is changing," he says.
Will the red tide be strong enough to wash Gov. Ted Kulongoski from office in November? That would be an upset; he is, after all, an incumbent riding the wave of a healthy economy. But Hibbitts and other savants say the independent candidate Ben Westlund could lasso a big chunk of voters disappointed in the governor, clearing a path for Saxton.
Four years ago, Republican candidate Kevin Mannix surrendered the middle by trumpeting his opposition to abortion: Saxton won't do that.
The secretary of state's race two years from now will pack consequences nearly as large. It's a key race not just because Republicans will see an opportunity in 2008 to claim a seat that has been under Democratic control since 1985, but also because the secretary of state gets to redraw legislative districts in 2010.
In 2001, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury used deft cartographic skills to compensate for his party's dwindling numbers. But if a Republican draws the lines next time, he or she could concentrate urban Democrats into fewer districts, thus marginalizing them even faster.
Barring an unforeseen demographic change, the Democrats will have to fundamentally remake themselves to avoid sliding into minority-party status in Oregon.
Party leaders already tried throwing resources at the problem. In 2004, Looper directed a group called America Votes, which put 600 paid canvassers on the streets. They knocked on more than 750,000 doors and briefly restored the vanishing Democratic registration advantage.
But those gains melted away faster than a snow-cone in August. "We knew that it was a one-time booster shot," Looper says. "To be successful, we are going to have to make structural changes."
Some of those structural changes involve making registration of young voters a continuous rather than episodic effort, as the Oregon Bus Project is currently doing. Others are more strategic, tackling meaty issues like payday loans, on which Democrats scored a big win earlier this year.
Ultimately, Looper says, Democrats will have to recapture voters by changing the political dialogue. "We must give people something to vote for, not just against," he says. "When we make it clear that progressives are about holding both government and big corporations accountable, and standing up for economic fairness for all Oregonians, we win."
Nashif says that won't be enough. He argues that Oregon Democrats have moved too far to the left of the electorate and that their future lies in a downward trend whose slope Looper knows better than anybody.
"The advantage they're holding onto is razor-thin," Nashif says. "And history in this state shows, once you lose the edge, it's very difficult to get back."
Democrats' dominance in Oregon is a relatively recent phenomenon. For 62 of the first 86 years of the 20th century, the state had a Republican governor. From 1878 until 1985, every Oregon secretary of state was a Republican.
Oregon Democrats enjoyed their greatest numerical advantage over Republicans in the mid-'70s after the Vietnam War ended and President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.
The greatest growth in registration of nonaffiliated voters in Oregon came in just prior to independent Ross Perot's presidential bid in 1992. The number of independents more than doubled to just over 322,000 for that race.
Plenty of people are unaware of Oregon's changing hue. In the July/August edition of the Atlantic Monthly, political commentator Ryan Sager wrote, "The Pacific Coast states are blue and...likely to stay solidly blue for the foreseeable future."
In the 2006 election cycle, groups where progressives congregate are running voter registration campaigns. Among them: the Oregon Bus Project (www.busproject.org), Our Oregon (www.ouroregon.org) and Oregon NARAL (www.prochoiceoregon.org).
The Democratic edge over republicans is going, going... (see graph @ www.wweek.com/media/7763-1.gif)
Democrats, Republicans and Others (See graph @ www.wweek.com/media/7763-2.gif)
Oregon is Changing (See graph @ www.wweek.com/media/7763-3.gif)